In the Future, Your Touchscreens Will Touch You Back


You comfort your grieving friend online over chat, but you can’t reach out and touch their shoulder

Posted On:  05 Jan . 2017
In the Future, Your Touchscreens Will Touch You Back
 

You comfort your grieving friend online over chat, but you can’t reach out and touch their shoulder. You buy shoes at Zappos, comparison shopping all your favorite brands, but you can’t make eye contract with the checkout clerk and smile at some silly joke they make. You get advice from a therapist online, but you can’t see in their eyes that your story touches a nerve. You flirt online, but you can’t sneak a kiss.

There’s a lot to be said for the convenience of all our new electronic options. But on the web, we put convenience first at the expense of lost face-to-face human interaction and the interpersonal touch that goes along with it. This tactile deprivation has made us “tactless” in the original sense of the word.

We increasingly lack the experience of human touch, that crucial form of social glue. Even incidental social touch is crucial. It connects people in the community and in the workplace, fostering emotions of gratitude, sympathy, and trust. People who are gently touched by a server in a restaurant tend to leave larger tips. Doctors who touch their patients are rated as more caring, and their patients have reduced stress-hormone levels and better medical outcomes. Even shopkeepers sell more merchandise when they briefly and lightly touch their customers on the arm.

And it’s not just human touch that is lacking online. Social scientists have shown that the way certain objects feel has a large influence on buying decisions and that consumers prefer to choose their purchases from sellers who allow their products to be touched. This is a particularly strong effect for products that come in contact with the body like shoes, bed linens, clothing and cosmetics. And this positive effect of touch is not limited to soft or silky things. In 1932, Sheldon and Arens wrote a now-classic book entitled Consumer Engineering in which they implored manufacturers to produce a product- whether it be a fountain pen, a compact or a pipe that “snuggles in the palm.” Indeed, in one recent study conducted by the marketing consultant firm Millward Brown, the feel of a mobile phone was reported to be more important than it’s appearance for 35 percent of consumers.

While online retail continues to grow, even for products that contact the body, there will come a time when this growth will be limited by the desire to touch the goods on offer. The ability to simulate touch experience with a machine is not widespread at present, but there are reasons to believe that this technology will improve dramatically in the not-too-distant future. Engineers, like Stanford’s Allison Okamura and her co-workers, are building haptic devices that not only synthesize the texture and form of objects, but also react to the user’s movements to give a sense of weight or deformability. Initially, these devices will be used for applications like robotic surgery, allowing the surgeon the feel the tissue contacting the end of the surgical tool, but they will soon flow into the broader marketplace.

 

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